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© The Metaphilosophy Foundation and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1997. Published by Blackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 238 Main Street, Cambridge, MA 02142, USA METAPHILOSOPHY Vol. 28, Nos. 3, July 1997





ABSTRACT: Current debates surrounding liberalism and communitarianism, modernity and postmodernity, ethical theory and narrative ethics fail to account for shifting foundations of personal identity in an increasingly computer-mediated era of human communication. This paper aims to examine some of the conceptual assumptions about identity and community which are being radically undermined by rapidly evolving information networks and are therefore in need of redefini- tion. Additionally, I argue for an expansion of the literary imagination to include virtual, coauthored fiction sites where exploration of personal identity will bear upon future ethical and political decision-making.

For many scholars breathing the rarefied air of literary theory and philos- ophy, the world of communications technology is light years away and has seemingly little to do with the more pressing issues of human identity and agency in an age of moral relativism. But like many of my colleagues in the humanities, facing the beginning of my career in these extreme times of uncertainty, I have become increasingly dependent upon new modes of communication, new ways of transmitting my work, and new forms of leisure activity. And I am also witnessing an increasing disparity between the theoretical issues of my scholarly work and the realities of life in the electronic age. There are some questions in my field that are not being answered, indeed, not even being posed. First, postmodernism problema- tized identity; then, cyberspace simplified postmodernism; and so what, now, is becoming of personal identity as we know it? And more impor- tantly, how are the moral and political moorings contingent upon that defi- nition of personal identity loosening in an era transformed by information technologies? Armed with keyboard and mouse, we face a screen to which we are wedded and in which we are losing ourselves, for better or worse. The

* I am grateful for comments by Terry Bynum, Martin Matusík, Sherry Turkle, Sanda Golopentia, Inge Wimmers, and I. C. Bupp as well as the participants of ETHICOMP96 (Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca en Madrid, Nov. 6–8, 1996), where this essay was originally presented.



labyrinth of an endless web renders the opacity of postmodern theory transparent and the transparency of a unified self opaque. Contemporary debates surrounding political liberalism and communitarianism are simul- taneously forcing us to look back to the Enlightenment in our critique of foundationalist thought and forward to new perspectives on our rapidly changing, increasingly global world. We are still sharply divided on the issue of human subjectivity and the role of the “ex subject” of postmoder- nity (Matvejevitch). 1 The evolution of communications technology is bringing us closer to facing difference and demanding tolerance. And yet, we also find ourselves propelled into a world rife with rising nationalism, xenophobia, and anxiety over our own sense of identity; both as individu- als living in the information age and as members of an international community larger and infinitely more complex than the formative commu- nity in which we were reared. Thus, as we consider the philosophical foundations which promised tolerance, individual rights, and the overall good of the community, we must also remind ourselves of the need to rethink what constitutes individual identity in light of the current radical metamorphosis of our definition of community.

“Constitutive Communities” and Globalization

If we internalize the norms of our particular community which guides our judgments about how we should live and interact with others, then what are the implications of recent studies of ‘narrative identity?’ If we are formed by the contingencies of our community narratives and also derive our unity from the vantage point of the story of our individual lives, what happens when that community narrative is increasingly influenced and subjugated by a virtual/global community? Further, can we continue to be satisfied with the assumption of unity (which those moral and political philosophers who privilege narrative unity do not question) when our culture no longer is based upon narrative but upon a “relational web” created by technological advances? In what ways will our thinking about the link between unity of identity (or selfsameness) and moral theory be altered? Presuppositions reaching back to the thought of Aristotle will perhaps be dramatically undermined to an extent that we are just begin- ning to fathom. Normative ethical theory and its bearing on the historical, cultural contingencies of personal moral experience are not being ques- tioned radically enough. Daniel Bell defines “constitutive communities” as having the following criteria: the nature of a given people’s self-definition; the context this

1 Predgrag Matvejevitch described at the 1995 UNESCO meeting in Paris the phenom- enon of “ex” which concerns the constitution of personal and collective identities in their geopolitical, social, spacial, psychological spheres and the impact of this phenomenon on moral attitudes.

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“largely background way of thinking, acting, and judging” provides; and—significantly—a commitment made against the threat of loss. This third criterion, in Bell’s words, is described thus: “one loses a commitment to a constitutive community at the price of being thrown into a state of severe disorientation where one is unable to take a stand on many things of significance.” Let us consider, then, some specific instances of the impact of cybercommunities on “real life” communities. Later I will consider the implication of virtual reality for personal identity and the moral issues it raises. For now, it is sufficient to focus upon the extreme reconfiguration of social and economic relations in both urban and rural communities by information technologies. Saskia Sassen (1996) stresses the need to concentrate on changing dynamics in cities and communities as a more accurate gauge of the effect of globalizing forces. According to Sassen, the tension between “a dynamic of dispersal” and “a dynamic of centralization” inherent in the move toward global economics has only very recently been targeted as site of contradictory forces (ibid., 631). Thus the hypermobility associated with this trend is unavoidably tempered by location specific conditions. Liquified capital, ‘hypermobility’ and ‘hyperprofit’ all fuel this “overvalorization” of economic globalization; those operations left in the dust—those operations that support the local economy and social fabric of individual urban communities—are increas- ingly at risk (ibid., 633). The influx of foreign corporate activity has sharp- ened the lines marking the “urban glamour zone” and the “urban war zone” (ibid., 636). The transformative effect, then, of new information technologies upon the economic and social infrastructures of community is profound. The long-term ramifications have yet to be seen. However, as these interior structurings of community evolve, can the citizen uses of information technology counter the detrimental effects of such radical reshapings? I turn now to two studies: one of the “cybercitizens” of Orange County, Florida and another of information technology (IT) users in North Arica. In 1994, citizens of Orange County, Florida engaged in a project funded mainly by the Public Technology, Inc. (PTI), Urban Consortium (Babington 1995). Its vision of “well-connected citizens” eventually became realized in this new community of cyberneighbors, who, by defin- ing and accessing a networked space, began the process of shifting the focus from the geographical sense of community to an interest-based sense of community. Thus, the definition of ‘neighbor’ is evolving, and not without serious implications for corresponding definitions of ‘responsive- ness,’ ‘accountability,’ and ‘inclusion’ (ibid., 11). The dialectic between electronic reformations of community and reformations of personal iden- tity is one that demands attention from philosophers, sociologists, econo- mists, psychologists, legal scholars, among others. Let us consider a more profoundly resonant effect of such computer usage in a radically different political environment such as that of North Africa.

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A 1992–94 study of North African computer use highlighted another

site of struggle: this time between governments wary of losing control and citizen empowerment (Nassef, Danowitz and Goodman 1995, 28). Increases in communication and access to worldwide information networks pose the specific threat of diluting localized religious and tradi- tional values as citizens plug into the mass of Otherness exhibited on the Internet. Of great concern is the resulting social dissent which could ensue between computer literate, globally oriented individuals and those citizens still enmeshed in localized value systems. Thus, the evolution of computer technologies in the West translates into the electronic dissemination of Western value systems into cultures to which such “virtual value systems” pose wide-ranging moral, political and personal dilemmas. In such contexts, what constitutes freedom? Whose conception of freedom is being advocated on a global scale? Issues of universalism seem to be increasingly problematized as we enter, some enthusiastically and others unwillingly, an electronically afforded global community.

‘Narrative Identity’ and Computer-Mediated Agency

Among efforts to redefine and thereby reclaim the justificatory role of reason in human subjectivity, three articulations stand out both in their painstaking analysis and in their commitment to the Kantian legacy of ulti- mate agency: those of John Rawls, Paul Ricoeur and Jürgen Habermas. Kant’s insistence on the purity of the individual’s will as the ultimate normative role continues to haunt the kind of liberalism advocated by John Rawls in American political philosophy. In France, growing recognition of the political nature of Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of identity again raises the issue of the legacy of a Kantian transcendental idealism. And in Germany, Jürgen Habermas forces the question of where to “situate the self” in order that the ultimate good to the community may result. 2 However, among these differing approaches to the problem of the rational self, Ricoeur’s concept of ‘narrative identity’ ultimately raises the most penetrating questions with regard to evolving models of personal and community identities.

In his most recent work, Oneself as Another, Paul Ricoeur has delved

into a hermeneutics of identity which posits the self as other, extricates sameness from agency, and thereby eliminates stasis while guarding moral accountability (1992). But if Ricoeur’s concept of ‘narrative iden- tity’ arises from the unity of plot, and in doing so, assumes certain funda- mental characteristics of storytelling, how is further articulation of this self possible in our rapidly changing culture based on the nonlinear matrix

2 Seyla Benhabib (1992) stresses the interactive nature of a new definition of Habermasian universalism, and thereby hopes to both grant justice its “dignity” and respect the positionalities of those parties previously excluded in any discourses of democracy.

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of cyberspace? Virtual reality, the endless proliferation of cybercommuni- ties, and the increasing dependence upon online text will slowly begin to impact the cultural privileging of plot and the human need for unity. The infinite tangential nature of hypertext, web links, and the ever quickening pace of infomania cannot help but transform the essence of Ricoeur’s ‘narrative identity.’ By assessing Ricoeur’s critique of and possible self- implication in the modernist view of identity, one must look forward not only to the restructuring of self as other within the conceptual framework of the new communications technology, but more importantly to its ethi- cal import. Ricoeur, according to his critics, ultimately implicates himself in the modernist tradition he is supposedly critiquing by taking the path of a transcendental idealist on the subject. Despite his distinction between the ipse (an essential selfhood) and idem (the sameness inherent in static

conceptions of selfhood) of personal identity, there remains a self-same entity which supersedes, though ulitmately beckoned by, the Other. Thus, unlike the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas who privileges ethics before ontology, Ricoeur strives for a compromise between an answering “I” to be held accountable (ipséité) and the radicality of the wholly Other. One of Ricoeur’s staunchest critics, Pamela Anderson, contends that Ricoeur’s position is not radical enough to dissassociate him from the tradition of Descartes, Kant and Hegel, and thereby points to a need for further dialogue between his hermeneutics of the self and philosophies of difference, such as that of Lévinas (1993a,b). She asks: “in ultimately returning to an ontology of the (self)-same—contra-Lévinas—in which Ricoeur claims to explore the being of self, we must ask: does Ricoeur intend a direct challenge to Lévinas’ own deliberate move beyond onotol-


I argue that inherent in Ricoeur’s ultimate argument for ontology before ethics is an assumption of the way in which narrative unity informs personal identity, an assumption which may no longer be valid as tech- nology introduces new ontological ground, new schemas for the intersec- tion of time and space, and thus new criteria upon which to configure an ethics of narrative identity. Ricoeur engages in a chain of assertions begin- ning with the understanding of oneself as an interpretive act. The second and, as I see it, problematic step involves the derivation of the self’s inter- pretation from the structure of narrative plot; in other words, the self-inter- pretive act is mediated by the historically unifying act of narrative (1992,

.?” (1993a, 245).


Ricoeur is not alone in his quest for understanding human agency and all of its moral contingencies through the mediation of narrative. However, contemporary discussions about the role of imaginative literature in the realms of moral and political philosophy have tended towards an insuffi- ciently critical view of narrative. Philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, and Charles Taylor have explored the

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ways in which narrative informs personal identity as well as shapes and reconfigures our ethical preconceptions. 3 Literary critic Geoffrey Hartman has noted presciently that the “fate of reading” might not be drastically affected by the endless series of movements in literary criticism, but by dramatic “shifts in perception,” occasioned before by Freud, for instance, and in the increasingly near future by the effect of cyberspace and hyper- text (1996, 383). In response to the challenge posed by readers by commu- nications technology, Hartman advocates the application of Nietzsche’s

“slow reading,” not only to literary texts, but to the “daily surfeit of words

an inevitable part of the environment, [which] both

provokes and erodes our ability to think, to stabilize the endless flow” (ibid., 385). He goes on to describe this new dynamic which presents both challenges and possibilities to the importance of reading: “A shock to our sense of humanity or an affront to intellectual arrogance sets in motion a questioning so radical that it has impacted reading itself, even the possi- bility of any kind of contemplative existence” (ibid.). It is precisely this threat to any kind of vita contemplativa that I wish to explore, for the status of ethical inquiry is at stake: we can no longer afford to confine ourselves solely to the realm of the novel when we consider the dynamic relationship between narrative and identity.

and images

Communications Technology and the Literary Imagination

NeoKantian utilitarians such as R. M. Hare fear the thought experiments that fiction allows, believing that by indulging one’s imagination in unlikely scenarios one is led to a state of moral confusion (1989). And yet, at a time even the experimental character of science fiction is beginning to mirror technologically afforded reality, what better preparation for the real challenges in ethical theory and application than the realm of the literary imagination? I believe that recent reassessments of individualism as essen- tially transgressive yet accountable hold promise not only for the difficul- ties inherent in the debates between liberals and communitarians, theorists and antitheorists, and modernists and postmodernists but most signifi- cantly for those difficulties we face as today’s individual evolves into tomorrow’s cyborg. 4 Despite the long history of debate surrounding the issue of individual- ism, the concept of the individual continues to be problematic. Postmodernism, with its insistence on doing away with the subject, consti- tutes an ongoing attempt to free modernity of its egocentric bias. With new challenges arising with the growing knowledge of previously unheard narratives of oppression, feminist and postcolonialist theories pose partic-

3 Cf. MacIntyre 1981, Nussbaum 1990, Rorty 1989, and Taylor 1989.

4 I am thinking in particular of Martin J. Matustík’s treatment of individualism (1993,


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ular difficulties with regard to human agency. However, when the strivings for objectivity are denounced in favor of so many petits récits, is not a similar ideological foundationalist claim reproduced in this new alle- giance to particularism? Telling stories needs to be balanced with a contin- ued commitment to theory: we should not fall prey to an either/or choice of our own devising. While some of those discourses of postmodernism which emphasize the Other, the dynamic process of becoming, and the excesses of meaning inherent in any linguistic expression are intellectually exhilarating, there remains a stinging question whose solidity refuses to melt into air. Moral and political urgencies which have resulted from the deeply penetrative inquires by postmodern theorists require us more than ever to expand our conceptualization of the individual. I believe that a chiasmatic relationship between theory and imaginative narratives (including those virtual [ir]realities) will yield the most deeply penetrating insights in the ethical issues of our increasingly global community. We need to begin to examine some of the difficulties that have surfaced in the liberal/communitarian debate, and the bearing that debate has on the future—and ethical import—of the literary imagination. Narrative ethics and ethical theory pose the same questions of what constitutes the good life and how we should conduct ourselves within the framework of our own individual lives. The actual form of narrative, however, invites us as readers to involve ourselves in a sort of mental journey during which certain ways of viewing ourselves, our lives, and others are subjected to multiple, intertwining perspectives belonging to one or more characters. Thus, right away the very act of reading a narrative text is in some ways an invitation to self-exploration. But perhaps the concept of the “literary” imagination could be broad- ened to include the inner workings of the individual mind in relation to different “texts” it encounters and/or coproduces, whether those texts appear in print or electronically. 5 With the humanities currently under siege in the United States, the active, dynamic role of the “literary” imag- ination must be expanded and clearly articulated beyond the confines of the academy. Martha Nussbaum recently has clarified the integral role literature can play in public policy formation and in legal affairs (1991). But if it is true that within the decade leisure time will be spent increas- ingly in front of a computer screen rather than the television screen (most likely a merging of the two will erase the distinction), then we need to expand our notion of how the “literary” imagination becomes operative.

5 An example of this is the MultiUserDomain, hereafter referred to as a MUD, in which participants log on as a self-created character, interacting with other such characters in a community-developed narrative. Sherry Turkle offers the following definition: “text-based MUDs are a new form of collaboratively written literature. MUD players are MUD authors, the creators as well as consumers of media content” (1995, 11).

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There can and should be a dynamic interaction between the literary text, such as the novel, and the virtual text, such as MUDs, discussion lists, and online chat groups. Certainly the narrative text of the novel offers a rich landscape of thought experiments and multiple viewpoints by virtue of its fictive nature and the prismatically presented characters. However, can we really afford to center so much of the moral and political theoriz- ing upon the shifting foundation of what actually constitutes narrative without incorporating new sites of fictional interaction? In an era of radi- cally and quickly evolving avenues of communication, which, I might add, offer unprecedented opportunities to turn discourses of the Other into solid praxis, perhaps it is naive to ignore the technological narratives in which younger generations are being steeped.

Virtual Personhood

I mentioned earlier that I would consider the impact of virtual reality on personal identity, particularly as it relates to self-understanding and the assumed link between unity of self and moral accountability. Sherry Turkle’s important study of negotiations of identity in cyberspace provides many instances—more than I can address here—where identity is decid- edly performative (1995). In our study here this negotiatory character of cyberactivity raises the issue of how to determine the aspect(s) of human identity which does not necessitate unity in order to assure moral account- ability. By participating in such cybersites as MUDs, individuals imagina- tively participate via self-created characters where they might be male, female, human, animal or even a male masquerading as a female masquerading as a male. This kind of activity is reportedly quite addictive, many participants feeling that this imaginative activity is more “real” than real life (ibid., 11–19). If it is true, as Turkel argues, that the nature of cyberspace and its concomitant activities render the dense complexities of the postmodern theory of Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze surprisingly transparent (ibid., 15), then the issue of multiplicity within human indi- viduality cannot be sidestepped or simply countered by a return to the subject. I would argue that by beginning the serious exploration of the relation between ethical theory and narrative ethics, one faces the addi- tional task of delineating the contours of new, virtual (co-authored) narra- tive sites which can dramatically inform personal agency equally well. Is it viable to establish any system of ethics which privileges either the community (changing on a global scale at an ever faster rate) or the indi- vidual (whose agency is under siege by postmodern and poststructuralist interrogations of human subjectivity)? How does one not ignore historical, material determinations and still allow for an absolute, albeit qualified, free- dom of the individual positionality? By losing ourselves in the act of read- ing, whether in an imaginative literary text or in online imaginative configurations such as hypertext or MUDs, how do we incorporate or

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corroborate any answers to these questions? Perhaps it would be wise to extend a radical and rigorous questioning of philosophical pragmatism’s claim on literature to problematic and inherently modernist articulations of narrative identity. By doing so, an enriched understanding of the literary imagination might be achieved, through which we can begin to face the full spectrum of political and ethical challenges which the next century presents. We must incorporate new modes of “reading ourselves” in order to effectively continue the process of questioning the viability of moral ratio- nalism as well as the role of the individual in relation both to himself or herself and to the community in which he or she is ineluctably enmeshed. And more importantly, we need to expand our interpretation of commu- nity to include the global, virtual community whose definition grows more precise and more influential with every passing day. An ethics must be articulated which stems from radically new definitions of both the self and the increasingly multiple communities in which that self engages. In conclusion, I advocate a reinterpretation of both individualism and the underlying assumptions of any communitarian stance, a reinterpreta- tion which would no longer ignore changing ontological foundations in our era of electronic revolution. As we witness the end of a millennium and the revolutionary impact of technological advances, questions, arise about the relationship between the desire for unity and the still perceived threat of multiplicity, between the unity of narrative and the unity of self, and most significantly between the dissolution of the ontological under- pinnings of these issues and the lingering assumptions which weigh heav- ily in contemporary moral and political philosophy. Perhaps, as Philip Selznick has noted: there is indeed a distinction to be made between the “bounded altruism” of particularism and the “inclusive altruism” of universalism (1992, 1995). In the age of new advances in human commu- nication, we need to privilege commitment over characteristics and inter- ests over identities.

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